I’ve got a mate who works for a well-known producer of ‘coffee pods’, sealed units of powdered DIY cappuccino, latte, mocha and myriad others which cover a cocktail of coffee, milk and water. You can buy pods in all manner of sizes – venti, grande and tallgrandewithextragrande – small, medium and large to you and me. According to my mate, sales of ‘pods’ are going through the roof along with the pretentiously branded machines that gurgle and splutter out the finished product (presently appearing on our TV screens every 30 seconds or so, such is the anticipated yuletide demand). The world has apparently gone mad for over-priced, over-hyped, over-my-dead-body coffee products.
Don’t get me wrong; I like a cappuccino as much as the next man. There’s nothing better than sitting down with a frothy concoction and drooling over a lavish coffee-table photo book. It seems however that these days are numbered. It seems that only two of the trio of coffee, coffee table and coffee table book have a future.
Back in the day (I’m never quite sure when ‘the day’ actually was) the Holy Grail for most nature photographers was to produce a book. I was the same. It was a symbol that somehow you’d ‘arrived’, that you were a ‘proper’ photographer; you could even be referred to as an ‘author’. It was never a financial thing; it was a ‘feelgood’ thing and if you could at least cover your costs, it was worth doing. Not any more.
I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion – fuelled by dwindling sales, dwindling interest, dwindling employment across the publishing sector and more significantly, the stack-em-high, sell-em-cheap tactics of the likes of Amazon – that the coffee table photography book is dead. Or is at least gasping its last breath. Do you know that Amazon can sell my latest (co-authored) book (including postage and packing) cheaper than I as one of the authors, can buy it for? I’m the greengrocer on the High St. watching Tesco shut me down. The coffee table book was once a badge of honour for the author, something to be savoured by the reader. Now like most things, it’s a cheap, disposable commodity. The photographic High St. is becoming full of empty coffee tables.
And my point? Well like the High St. greengrocer or the miners under Thatcher, we can whinge and whine about unwelcome change, but rarely are our voices heard. No, we must buckle down and reinvent ourselves because our voices need to be heard; we must fill the gap on the coffee table with something different. Sad it may be, but nothing stays the same forever and change is very much the thing in photography just now. And here’s the crucial point: books are just stories. They feel nice, they smell nice, they are nice but they’re just stories. Us photographers mustn’t get disillusioned, we must continue to invent and then tell new stories. Not in a £25 book perhaps, but through different platforms. We need to keep the coffee tables of tomorrow full of inspiring, insightful and compelling stories about nature.